Think Nicola Sturgeon has risen from nowhere? Think again

Think Nicola Sturgeon has risen from nowhere? Think again
The Guardian, By Lesley Riddoch


The political commentators in London might still be acclimatising to Sturgeon, but we Scots have had a good view of her abilities for over a decade.


If Carlsberg did manifestos, they’d have a launch like this. Nicola Sturgeon, the new star of British politics, has delivered a powerful vision of a progressive Britain without threats, exaggeration, bells or whistles, and has yet created a political event described as passionate by battle-hardened commentators from both sides of the border. A bit like a new volcanic island whose molten rock can still be reshaped, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon has adapted faster than others to the strange new environment of minority government. Her confidence is compelling.


As all eyes focused on the diminutive Pasionaria-like figure clad in the vivid red once reserved for the Labour party, I wonder how many political correspondents were quietly flabbergasted. Why hadn’t they seen this woman coming? How had they missed her meteoric rise? Where was she during the referendum last year?


Ah, the irony. Sturgeon has worked half her life to become an overnight success, and most of that graft has happened in full public view since she became deputy to Alex Salmond in 2004. She’s had two years of non-stop performance and persuasion during the independence referendum campaign. She’s learned from a man who’s won almost every accolade London has to give for political nous and determination. She’s also been in government – not opposition. During the recent opposition leaders’ TV debate, it was quite extraordinary to realise that the most credible radical voice in the room was coming from Scotland’s first minister. But that’s no surprise to most Scots.


Even though the white paper on independence was dismissed by many unionist observers as an uncosted wishlist, it required more detailed thought about constructing and managing new systems than anyone south of the border has undertaken for years. Sturgeon set up a commission to devise an alternative welfare system, and ministers and civil servants were tasked with creating progressive models to deliver every aspect of governance from immigration to taxation. And all the while, Sturgeon was also keeping the Scottish government’s daily show on the road. In short, Scotland’s first minister has gone through several marathons to get where she is today – and looks leaner, more relaxed, confident and focused as a result. By contrast, her political rivals look more battle-weary, inflexible and plain angry as this elegant interloper dares to enter their political domain.


Sturgeon has grasped that she must address two distinct audiences with every keynote speech. The Scottish audience hasn’t necessarily been hanging on her every word – we know from exposure to the radical Sturgeon that there is no prospect of a deal with Tories, or a U-turn on scrapping the renewal of Trident. What Scots needed to see was that despite all the attention she has received from London-based commentators, Scotland still comes first for Sturgeon. After all, the allure of Westminster power has pre-occupied, distracted and softened many other reforming efforts in the past. For Scots, the single message on the podium and backdrop was vitally important – Stronger for Scotland.


For progressive viewers in the rest of the UK, the detailed programme was important – and possibly more appealing than Labours’ own. More money for the NHS, no money for Trident and a number one priority to end austerity – it’s easy to see why Scottish opinion polls consistently predict a meltdown for Scottish Labour, as it struggles to identify its own core values or any weak point in Sturgeon’s appeal.


The first minister even charmed the media – staying for a press conference, instead of leaving abruptly as rivals at more choreographed launches have done. And though it was essentially just another manifesto launch, today’s performance by Nicola Sturgeon could yet prove to be much more: the end of the Big Man and the start of the assertive woman as the preferred model for political authority. No wonder the whole of the UK is rapt.